“That day when Turnus raised the flag of war…
The high commanders…
From every quarter drew repeated levies
And laid the wide fields waste of their field hands.”
Virgil, The Aeneid
I have always been alarmed by the ease with which a sand castle is stomped down by a bully.
We usually do not think of field hands when we think of war. Not so for Virgil, that lover of cultivated fields: in singing of war he reminds us of husbandmen. A close look at war, its past and its present, makes clear who often suffers the most—the poor, the laborers, those whose work with their hands sustains human life in its daily needs.
We might with Virgil consider especially the farmers. Their fields are themselves laid waste; or the jolt to the ‘economy’ might hit them, who are usually close to the margin, the hardest. And of course they are levied, conscripted, leaving their fields behind to fight a war that often is remote from their own immediate concerns.
What husbandmen do and build is so vulnerable; of necessity it is always ‘outside the walls,’ open to the plunder of those passing by.
Many of the most important things in our life are like a farmer’s fields. It takes years, tears, and love to cultivate them. But we cannot keep them from harm. They make us vulnerable.
And yet they can be surpassingly beautiful. And fruitful.
A ‘husband’ can never hide his life’s work. Nor can he simply lock it within walls. But he labors on, with confidence. That is how it should be.
Many young men dream of being strong, of having power, and perhaps of defending their home. These can be noble aspirations. But life itself is really in cultivating something, something that is worth defending. And while we won’t always be in a position to defend it, the world will never be the same, for our having done what we did.
Virgil (70-19 B.C.) is the great Roman poet, author of The Aeneid and The Georgics. In the Divine Comedy he appears as Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.
Image: The Coming Storm, by George Innes (1825-1894)